Friday, December 29, 2006

Anti-Semites Everywhere

Which offense resulted in Judith Regan, the trash queen of book publishing, being banished from Rupert Murdoch's empire of high culture? Was it her outburst in a heated phone conversation with a Jewish lawyer that in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson book fiasco she is the victim of a "Jewish cabal" or was it an incident several years earlier when, to quote from the Times' story, she "boasted of removing the scrolls from her neighbor's mezuzas and replacing them with torn pieces from dollar bills."

We know the answer because it has been all over the news. Ms. Regan kept her powerful position despite multiple wrongdoings because she was a money-maker and she was fired after the Simpson affair cost one of Mr. Murdoch's companies a bundle. She became damaged goods and was vulnerable. We can now celebrate because one more enemy of our people has been defeated.

We are awash in claims of anti-Semitic words or behavior by assorted celebrities and scholars, this at a time when surveys show that Jews in America are in high regard. Like never before, popular culture features Jewish symbols and characters and in large numbers, fellow Americans who are not Jewish are eager to tie the knot with those who are. It seems that we are being embraced by an America that loves us to spiritual death and yet we are constantly confronted by incidents that we label as anti-Semitic. Could it be that there is a dualism, that the contemporary Jewish popularity masks latent feelings that are legitimate reasons for concern?

Without a doubt, we have enemies and, without a doubt, history has given us more than ample reasons to be nervous. Yet, we must separate the wheat from the chaff, what is meaningless or inconsequential from what is serious. Else, we will be in a constant tizzy, with our emotional bags packed for a quick exit. It's alright to err on the side of caution, but not to exaggerate. We are overplaying the anti-Semitism gambit.

I do not subscribe to the refrain, heard often among my fellow Orthodox, that the "goyim" all hate us and I have elsewhere sharply challenged this attitude. Nor do I believe that what is anti-Semitic should be dismissed as inconsequential. We need to distinguish among words, factoring in the key elements of frequency and context, as well as their nexus to behavior. There is a difference between what is said in anger or while intoxicated or during horseplay or even in incautious private conversation and a pattern of anti-Semitic language or the inclusion of such language in a prepared speech or article. In short, not everything that sounds anti-Semitic is anti-Semitic.

We can understand this by looking at other situations where inappropriate words are used. In angry exchanges, as occurs at times between spouses or within families or between friends, people say wounding things that they scarcely believe. Such words may touch on the target's religion or ethnicity. I imagine that most of us have been guilty of such indiscretion and let the few of us - if there are any - who are without sin cast the first stone. Anger does not beget exalted language.

It is likely that when the next minor incident crops up, we'll once more holler anti-Semitism. We are comfortable with this accusation, as if it makes us feel better about the real wrongs committed against us. The seminal event occurred a couple of decades back with Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" remark about New York Jews. I could not figure out what the fuss was about, this despite my lack of respect for Mr. Jackson who has become a pathetic caricature of what he once was. Far more serious offenses against Jews have been committed by Al Sharpton, the phony Rev whose mouth is always revved up when there is a Black misfortune ripe for exploitation.

With his flare for sadistic entertainment, Mel Gibson is encased in layers of unsavoriness. A loyal son to his openly anti-Semitic father, he isn't a candidate for one of the humanitarian awards that our foolish organizations bestow on Hollywood unworthies. Yet, we were excessive in our reaction to his recent anti-Semitic rant. Despite the assertions by entertainment bigwigs that Gibson is now a leper, should he continue to have strong commercial value, some of the Stars of David will sing another tune.

Our tendency to locate anti-Semitism in nearly all nooks and crannies of American life, including incautious remarks by Billy Graham, reaches into the White House. We know about Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Even the venerated Harry Truman said things about Jews that he should not have. With his new book, Jimmy Carter is at the top of our most wanted - or is it most unwanted? - list. Presidents are particularly vulnerable because their private remarks are often recorded. What is usually missing in reports of presidential misuse of language is the context. A president who feels that he faces severe and undeserved pressure from Jews might be forgiven if he blurts out something like "what do these blankety-blank Jews want from me?" or uses even coarser language. Inappropriate? Yes. Anti-Semitic? No.

Whether the issue is Israel or American Jews, not everything that is critical or harsh or expressed in demeaning language is anti-Semitic. This is even true of Jimmy Carter whose use of the word "apartheid" to describe Israel's relationship with Palestinians is despicable and dishonest. We should knock the stuffings out of him for his anti-Israel polemic and this can easily be accomplished without indulging in the A-S gambit.

I do not know what term to use for the Neturei Karta scoundrels who shamed us with their embrace of the world's most dangerous anti-Semite. It is too facile to say that they are imposters. We should save our ire for them and others who are Jew-haters. Minor incidents and incautious language come with the territory called life. It's time that we recognize this.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Shortchanging Day Schools

New York's highest court has ordered the state to add about two million dollars to what it provides to New York City public schools, a tidy sum but less than half of what city officials believe is coming to them. Had they gotten all of what they wanted, per student expenditures would have risen by between $4,000-$5,000, a figure that matches what more than a handful of local Jewish day schools spend per student for a dual curriculum program.

I do not believe that money is the answer to all that ails public education. Most of what erodes the ability of public schools to properly educate children occurs outside of the school, in the home and street where family and behavioral pathologies abound and in the collateral damage caused by a popular culture that is at once exciting and destructive. The reach of the school is limited.

Still, classroom size can make a difference and this is true of the basket-full of other educational enhancements that cost money. If public education is shortchanged, what can we say about our schools? In the New York area, the average expenditure per child in Jewish day schools is not much more than half of what it is in public schools.

There are day schools that charge $20,000 or more tuition, schools where the word "scholarship" is scarcely recognized. These schools provide electives, extracurricular activities and usually a first-rate facility, their goal being to make the institution attractive to parents who have other educational options. High tuition buys much, yet it comes at the high Judaic cost of turning away an indeterminate number of prospective parents, including those of marginal religiosity whose children would benefit from a meaningful Jewish education. There is the added hardship in the large number of day school families that are hard-pressed to meet their tuition obligations.

The schools that get by on less than $5,000 per student scrimp on everything, including maintenance and curriculum. To boot, they tend to serve students who need additional educational and other services, as their enrollment inordinately consists of children from poor homes and immigrant and outreach families. The schools make do primarily because of the dedication and sacrifice of shockingly underpaid faculty. Inevitably, students at these schools do relatively poorly on standardized tests, a circumstance that the philanthropic sector often uses to justify the refusal to assist these institutions.

Rich and poor day schools in the city share the common fate of being victims of Federation neglect. The story is different around the country, as in an expanding number of communities Federation and philanthropic support of day schools has increased. In New York, the little that was done has become littler because several years ago Federation eliminated basic grants. While there has been talk of Federation atoning a bit for its misdeed, not a penny of what was taken away has been restored.

It's true that because of their large number, New York's yeshivas and day schools present a fundraising challenge that probably can never be resolved satisfactorily. More than half of all U.S. day school enrollment is in the New York metropolitan area, with the annual operating budget approaching one-billion dollars. When combined with New Jersey's enrollment, the share reaches two-thirds. It is unavoidable that for nearly all yeshivas and day schools, the bulk of the income must come from tuition.

This does not excuse philanthropic neglect and certainly not the shortchanging of schools that operate on a shoestring and cannot attract even modest support. Nor is there any excuse for the prolonged silence of Orthodox organizations and leaders. They talk much about the tuition crisis, doubtlessly with sincerity, yet they are unwilling to challenge Federation or to advocate on behalf of day schools. Inadvertently, they give aid and comfort to those who shortchange day schools. While they may claim that they are working behind the scenes, it remains that the tuition crisis worsens, as does the pressure on the large number of yeshivas and day schools that live a hand to mouth existence. Is it disrespectful to suggest that organizations that know how to produce press releases proclaiming this or that accomplishment speak out on behalf of our most vital institutions?

There is no quick fix to the problem. The best we can hope for on the income side is a modest increase of support from conventional philanthropic sources. For all of the attention that it is getting, government aid will not come in abundance, as much because of financial constraints on the public treasury as from constitutional constraints.

What is critical is whether there will be Orthodox advocacy for basic Torah education. Day schools were once the crowning achievement of American Orthodox life, the foundation on which our religious resurgence was built. Were there no yeshivas and day schools in the formative years of Orthodox growth, many of them supported then and even today by persons who were not Orthodox, the destruction of American Jewry would be far more advanced than it is today. Unfortunately, we have embraced the alien notion that religious Jewish education is a parental responsibility and not also a communal responsibility.

The message - it is unintended - sent out by Orthodox religious and lay leaders is that day school education at the elementary and high school levels is not a tzedakah priority, at least not for institutions located in North America. As a consequence, the poorer schools in particular are not able to adequately provide the education and services that their students need.

There are now substantial pockets of great affluence among the fervently Orthodox. In the chassidic sector, yeshivas are a primary beneficiary of the tzedakah given by a group's adherents. Not so in the yeshiva world. Unless yeshiva deans who are the acknowledged leaders of the day school world come to recognize that they have an obligation to lead, our schools will continue to be shortchanged.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Barak's Last Stand

You have to admire the staying power of Aharon Barak, the former President of Israel's Supreme Court. A couple of months after reaching the mandatory retirement age and required to leave the bench, he apparently continues to be involved in the court. He is writing opinions, which makes him a de facto member and therefore the Supreme Court has more members than the number set by law. So far as I know, in legal systems when a judge retires, that's the end of his involvement. Not so for Barak.

I imagine that there is a provision somewhere, perhaps in the court's procedures, that permits him to play this role. Just the same, it is wrong, though in line with the court-packing and other stratagems he has employed to maintain control over a body that has a huge role in Israeli life. Membership in the Supreme Court is rigged, adding another layer to its inherently undemocratic character. Rigging reached a new height during the Barak era, as when he blocked the appointment of the much-admired civil rights advocate Professor Ruth Gavison because he did not like her. He arranged for his successor who shares his extreme secular ideology and he has rigged key judicial panels that hear important cases.

Because they are fragile institutions in terms of their adherence to democratic norms, supreme courts tend to act with restraint. Israel's has a self-proclaimed exalted role that allows it to roam across the governmental and societal landscapes as it determines which laws, policies, appointments and practices shall stand and which shall be invalidated. This is democracy?

For all of his usurpations, Mr. Barak is shrewd and knows that there are limits, that if too much power is claimed by the court, there will be reprisals. He yields from time to time to the imperative of restraint. A useful example is his handling of challenges to the security wall that is still under construction. He ruled against the government in key cases, but upheld certain of the locations selected by the government. Much the same has occurred under his watch in other security and military cases.

Now he has ruled that Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza can sue Israel for damages and harm resulting from Israel Defense Forces actions. There are exceptions, such as when the damages occurred during a clearly defined "war" or against an enemy state or a terrorist organization. In their decision, Barak and his panel invalidated a law passed by the Knesset, a consideration that has not deterred this presumed advocate of democracy.

It is too early to assess the implications and reach of this ruling. It has been reported that there are pending in Israel's badly clogged courts more than 500 lawsuits brought by Palestinians claiming they were harmed and there are strong implications that hundreds more are lining up to sue, demanding that a state they abhor and many want to destroy pay compensation for its self-defense against Arab aggression. Likely, the raid on Israel's treasury will be huge. An additional cost is greater divisiveness in Israel.

The irony is that Israel's departure from Gaza has increased the prospect of Palestinian citizens being harmed because withdrawal has led to increased shelling from Gaza into Israel. The further irony is that Palestinian claimants are likely to do better in Israeli courts than the Israelis who once lived in a small part of Gaza.

Barak's approach is to figure out how to implement his ideological and policy preferences and then to search for legal precedents that serve, in a sense, as fig leafs for his jurisprudence. Nearly all of the Israeli legal precedents that he points to are his own opinions, a tendency that reaches a height in his latest ruling. He selects excerpts from books that share his ideology, yet he finds very little support in rulings from respected supreme courts elsewhere because they scarcely exist.

If what Barak has decided for Israel would be applicable to U.S. actions in Iraq, there would be at least a million Iraqi litigants in American courts. Under the circumstances facing Israel, its courts should be open to Palestinian claimants only when it can be shown that the IDF deliberately targeted civilians or that it did so with reckless disregard for the welfare of civilians. However, if civilians were in harm's way, that is not a sufficient justification for a claim.

War isn't pretty. Or fair. It's hell. Civilians are killed and maimed. Homes and property are destroyed. That is why the military must take prudent risks to avoid harming civilians. To demand more is unreasonable and wrong and to compound this wrong by inviting civilians to sue is folly. When Israel counteracts attacks coming from Gaza, it is doing what all responsible states know they must do. Instead of relying on his false ideological gods, Aharon Barak and the Israel Supreme Court should be mindful of what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in dissent in 1949 in a case called Terminiello v. Chicago: "There is danger that if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."

Hopefully, last week's ruling is Mr. Barak's last. Even so, it is certain that his dubious jurisprudence has taken strong root in the Supreme Court and his progeny will haunt us for years to come.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What's Wrong With Mesirah

Two Rabbis, one Reform and one Conservative, were in the news recently for alleged wrongdoing. Coverage in Jewish newspapers was minimal, raising once more the question of why our press is so hot to the trot whenever an Orthodox rabbi is accused. Could it be that editors and reporters do not accept the clerical credentials of the non-Orthodox?

Suffice it to say because the details are puerile, the Reform clergyman who is being sued by a former mistress who is not Jewish is being kept on by his Manhattan congregation. Less fortunate is the Conservative fellow who now sells used cars and, more ominously, is under indictment after lay leaders at the Manapalan, New Jersey, congregation he once served discovered that he had put his hands into the synagogue's cooking jar and removed nearly $100,000 that wasn't his. They snitched on him to the local authorities.

Which brings me to mesirah or the halachic misdeed of informing to government officials, a subject that has a long and painful history. We need not delve into the tragic record which encompasses the awful consequences of apostasy in hostile and usually Christian societies. Even in benign places, mesirah ordinarily is not permitted under our religious laws. This apparently was no concern to the Manapalan Conservatives who did not consult their movement's religious leaders. It also appears that the ex-rabbi was not given the opportunity to make restitution.

Serious financial wrongdoing is not a common occurrence in our institutional affairs. It does happen, as does other wrongdoing. Among the Orthodox, the halachic ban against mesirah is a powerful cultural norm. A related norm is the obligation of the person who acted wrongfully to take responsibility for his deeds and to make full restitution. This prudent course often results in full financial recovery and it strikes me as preferable to sending the perpetrator to prison, a course that results in little or no recovery and much collateral grief.

Even in financial matters, the halachic objection to mesirah comes under attack from secularists and other Jews who leap at every opportunity to attack our religious practices. They regard the mesirah ban as designed to cover up misdeeds. It means nothing to these critics that this way of life essentially has worked in our community and has resulted in what may be termed proximate justice. There are severe attitudinal and practical penalties directed against those who act wrongfully. Of course, the halachic system is imperfect in its execution because execution is in the hands of mortals for whom perfection is beyond reach. Yet, when compared with the usual outcome under civil or secular procedures aimed at curtailing or punishing wrongdoing, it should be evident that the halachic system comes out favorably.

The ban against mesirah is not total. There are circumstances when civil authorities are to be informed, particularly when the alleged wrongdoing endangers the welfare of others. There are instances of spousal abuse, child abuse and other situations where leading Orthodox rabbis instructed that civil authorities be notified.

Those who deprecate the Orthodox point to sexual abuse of children, including by a tiny number of rabbis, as an area where communal norms create a culture of cover-up with concern for the victims being subordinate to concern for the wrongdoers. The yeshiva deans who comprise the Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah, the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, adopted a policy statement that should dispel this canard. It begins, "We address ourselves to the problem of child molestation in our community." They continue, "in addition to the sins which they have committed, they have created painful memories in the minds of their victims, memories which can have a devastating lifetime impact." In a cover letter to principals, Rabbi Joshua Fishman, the organization's executive head, wrote "If there is indeed an allegation of child abuse that proves to be true, and the matter that had come to your attention was not attended to, you will be liable both in the eyes of G-d and according to secular law."

One of the advantages of the norm against mesirah is that it pays more than lip service to the obligation to protect the innocent. It should matter that the principle of a person being innocent until proven guilty is increasingly disparaged and also that prosecutorial abuse is widespread. We know that innocent people have been convicted of serious crimes they did not commit. The record in this regard in the area of sexual abuse is especially dismal. Persons charged which such crimes invariably are found guilty in the media and they are considered guilty until proven innocent. There was a notable case recently involving Temple Emanuel in Manhattan and its officials acted with much courage.

The state of criminal justice in this country - and in Israel - is too shaky to ignore and this has a bearing on the issue of mesirah. There is too much reliance on circumstantial evidence, of the kind proscribed in halacha. There is too much plea bargaining and other prosecutorial techniques that provide incentives for questionable and even false testimony, as witnesses seek to save their own skin.

If this isn't sufficient to induce doubts about contemporary criminal justice and also serve as an argument for the anti-mesirah standard, there is the expanding record in this country of meting out harsh sentences. Fully one-quarter of the world's prison population is in the U.S., an astounding statistic. We are becoming a gulag society. Even as virtually all categories of serious crime have seen sharp reductions over the last decade, there is each year a significant rise in the prison population. Judges, including on the federal bench, hand out long sentences without regard to family or societal consequences.

Why, then, should we trust civil authorities. At least in monetary matters, we should abide by the anti-mesirah rule. Violence and sexual abuse are different matters.